Ever since Larry Oakey departed from this world on April 1st - too fitting, given his sense of humor - I've received a wealth of memories, stories, and more from so many. Thank you for sharing each one; together they craft a fine sense of the man we shall miss so much.
Yet for me, words were hard to come. How do I state what this truly unique man meant to me? How do I say it "just right"? Here it is, the day of TGLO's memorial celebration, and I am still searching with no good answers. So, like my typical bridge game, I will simply try my best, knowing what I say will be too imperfect but hoping that at least some of the time, I get it right. Larry would understand - I sure hope.
Forty years ago, I started playing at the Bridge Center at 60th & Nicollet. From that time, bridge became an integral part of my life. My immense good fortune to not only gain an avocation that I loved - but to also be blessed with wonderful friends and incredibly fine partners. Larry was both.
Many would agree with me that had he chosen to become a well known national expert, Larry surely had what it took to do so. He was most competitive in national events, ultimately earning 2nd place in 1978's tough Men's Board a Match Teams with Steve Garner, Dick Melson and David Lehman.
Yet, for whatever reasons, Larry chose a different path for his bridge career. Rather than compete in the high octane, pressure filled world of world class bridge, Larry played more with a variety of friends. Some had plenty of talent; others were nice people with a fraction of Larry's ability. Yet he treated all with kindness and achieved decades of fine results.
For a number of years, Larry and I were a regular partnership - in addition to good buddies. Though we had our triumphs, never could I begin to approximate Larry's level of talent and understanding. More times than I like to recall, I'd perpetrate something so catastrophically awful, I'd challenge even Larry's ability to "let it go." "Were you even trying?" was a comment I'd heard more than once. In typical fashion, however, he'd shake it off and we'd be on to the next adventure.
Two experiences stand out. The first happened at the Gopher Regional; the finals of a knock-out. My LHO opened 3S; Larry called 5H! I was about to bid 5S - when my RHO beat me to the punch. Ugh; what to do!? I had a such a great hand.... Fine heart support, the spade ace, other good values on the side. It seemed a new suit would be natural and not a cue bid ... So my choice was 6 or 7 hearts. I thought and thought - then finally decided to go for the gusto: 7 hearts.
Once I bid, the 3S bidder went into the tank. Finally, he reluctantly passed, of course Larry did - and after a momentary flicker, my RHO did, too.
Larry often would mutter as he played. When the auction went all pass, he commented, "At least I know we're not off the ace of trump."
"Ace of trump?" I thought to myself? I don't have that card! As Larry was constantly kidding at the table, I hoped that this was one of those times... But - it was not. My RHO wisely realized that getting an extra 100 by doubling was not worth the risk that his partner might bid 7S - so he quietly settled for his plus 100.
Our teammates returned to the table and inquired: "Did you bid the slam?" Larry laughed, "Oh yeah, we bid it!" At the other table, Larry's counterpart bid 4H over 3S - and our opponents played it there. I could have doubled 5S, bid 6H - or even passed - and we would have won our match. Larry's brilliant bid deserved a better fate, but it did teach me a valuable lesson. When the opponents preempt and you have to guess, often the wisest guess is something middle of the road.
My other bridge story is also a tale of woe. Larry and I teamed up with Sharon Anderson and Irving Steinfeldt for a Grand National Team District final qualifying in Iowa. We didn't make the cut, so chose to play in a team game that evening.
This was an era where someone was inventing twists for the team games. One was called "Best Ball." Both sets of partnerships would sit the same direction - each pair instructed to play differently from the other. One pair might be conservative and the other aggressive, for instance. Then, each result would be recorded, but only the superior result would "count."
For the evening team game, a different version was used - I think for the first and last time in history. The principle was the same, except for this. Instead of your better result counting, the lesser of the two was the one that was recorded. And for this event and this session, Larry and I produced what I am quite certain was the most huge game we ever had in all the years we played together.
Round after round, the opponents would sit down and we'd crush them. We'd be brilliant, they'd commit an atrocity. This seemed to go on almost every hand. And we'd sit there, looking at one another, thinking "this cannot be happening!" For with ever top board we'd achieved, we knew "It cannot count; it won't matter." The results were so out of this world, no way Sharon and Irving could match them.
Despite these two unfortunate bridge memories, most of the rest of our partnership was super. I was lucky to have a long stretch of time when I was not working. So, Larry and I would play at the Bridge Center, head to a regional or even occasionally compete at the nationals. As we drove across the plains of the Midwest, we'd ramble on about bridge hands and theory and people, stories over the years, movies and more.
I know many others have mentioned much about Larry - but it bears repeating. He was an amazing film buff, not only attending more movies than anyone I ever knew, but also going to see the ones he liked the most up to 30 times! Everyone in the Twin City film world knew Larry - and of course loved him. There's a reason the Uptown Theater put up on their marquee: "We will miss you Larry."
Larry was amazingly talented at everything he did - and amazingly giving. If you needed it done and needed it done well - Larry was there. A frenzy of energy and lightning fast and always VWD.
And then there was Larry and his omnipresent bicycle. Some may not know that Larry never drove. Due to a lack of peripheral vision, he could not get a driver's license. So, instead, much of his transportation was self-powered. Larry road his bike prodigious distances, even up to age 77. Only an awful accident stopped him then. Occasionally, for truly far events, Larry would need a ride. I'd meet him at the Bridge Center and we'd head out to a bridge party in Prior Lake or Eagan ... Larry would always act as though I was performing some big favor. I'd always think I was only giving back a tiny fraction of what he gave to me and others.
It will be wonderful to celebrate Larry's life this afternoon at the TCBC - and incredibly tough to walk through the door and know he won't be there. I can see him in my mind's eye .... Sitting in his "cage", crammed with treats and boxes, huddled over the computer ... Walking around the room, making sure all is running smoothly. Sitting with his partners, those long, slim fingers, shuffling the cards, thinking out loud, almost always getting the best out of his partner and the game that is possible..... Pushing his bike out the door, heading to a movie or to coach softball or head to the Art Institute to volunteer...
I could go on and on some more. But I am sure, somewhere, Larry, who never wanted to be the center of attention, is already embarrassed too much.
Thank you for being there for all of us, Larry. As the Uptown Theater said so succinctly: Larry, we will miss you.